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BIOPIRACY


BIOPIRACY: PLUNDERING THE TREASURE CHEST OF TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE?


The concept of ‘bioprospecting’ or ‘biopiracy’ has become a hot topic in recent years. Zöe Clyde-Watson takes a look.


Biopiracy refers to the practice of commercially developing naturally occurring biological materials, such as plant substances or genetic cell lines, by a technologically advanced country or organisation without fair compensation to the peoples or nations in whose territory the materials were originally discovered. Inevitably, this leads to a confl ict of interest between foreign multinationals attempting to enforce IP rights, and developing countries trying to protect their cultural heritage. Many countries with a long history of traditional knowledge are hampered by the fact that very little of it is accessible in written form. Instead, knowledge is simply passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next, making it incompatible with modern IP laws, both in terms of ownership and prior art eff ect.


Various initiatives have been adopted in order more fairly to refl ect the contribution traditional knowledge makes to the modern world, particularly in the fi eld of medicine. T ese include creating digital knowledge libraries to ensure that traditional knowledge has a prior art eff ect, and collaborative projects or benefi t-sharing arrangements with local indigenous communities. New legislative initiatives have also been introduced that dovetail with existing IP laws, such as the recent Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefi t Sharing.


Historically, the battle against biopiracy has been fought by revoking unwarranted IP rights in the courts, which proved costly and time- consuming. Aſt er fi ghting hard for the revocation of the tumeric and basmati patents granted by the USPTO, and the neem patent granted by the EPO,


22 World Intellectual Property Review November/December 2011


India initiated a project to create a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL). T e TKDL provides a 30 million-page electronic database of more than 200,000 treatments, especially medicinal plants and formulations used in various Indian systems of medicine. T e project involved meticulously transcribing more than 148 ancient books into fi ve diff erent languages.


T e idea is not to restrict the use of traditional knowledge, but to ensure that patents are not granted erroneously due to lack of access to prior art, or for minor modifi cations of what was already known. India has now signed access agreements with a number of other international patent offi ces, allowing examiners to utilise the TKDL for prior art searches and examination. To date, it is understood that well over 50 pharmaceutical patents worldwide


www.worldipreview.com


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